Sunday, December 20

Once Upon A Red Rocket: A Short Story For The Holidays

Once Upon A Red Rocket
by Richard Becker

Lizzy Capland outflanked the outstretched hands of the man in the Santa suit and sat down on the bench beside him. She had turned 11 last June, far too old to sit on someone’s lap.

 “Too old to sit on my lap but not too old to see me,” mused Santa from behind the big white curls of his beard. “Well, hello there.”

“Yes sir, I’m too old. I mean, no sir,” said Lizzy. “I’m not here to really see you. I mean…”

Santa drew up an eyebrow, waiting patiently for her explanation.

“Well, I’m here to see you, obviously,” said Lizzy nervously, trying to find the words. “But I’m here to see you for my brother. He’s eight.”

 “Oh, I see,” said Santa Claus. “And what is his name?”

“Johnny,” she said. “Only he likes to be called John now. It makes him feel older.”

“Yes,” Santa said as if remembering something before offering her a wink. “He’s still Johnny to me too.”

“Then you probably know why he couldn’t make it here himself,” she said, breathing out the words in anxious desperation. “He’s terribly, terribly sick. He has leukemia.”

“It’s all right, child,” he said, putting a bear of an arm around her. “It’s all right.”

“Well, no sir. It’s not all right,” she fought back the tears. “But that is why I came to see you. I want to ask you for a Christmas miracle.”

“Oh, my dear, dear girl,” his voice dropping from merry tenor to a whispering baritone. “As much as I wish I could move heaven and earth to heal all children, it is beyond my powers.”

“I know Mr. Claus,” she said, regaining her composure. “I’m not asking for you to heal him.”

“Then what can I do for you?”

“There is only one present on Johnny’s Christmas list this year,” she said.

“Tell me what it is and I’ll do my best.”

“He wants a rocket ship.” “A rocket ship?” said Santa. “I can certainly do that. What kind would he like? A red one that takes his imagination to outer space or a blue one that can blast off because it’s water propelled or maybe something with a remote control?”

“No sir, you don’t understand,” she squirmed. “Johnny doesn’t want a toy rocket ship. He wants a real one.”

“A real one?”

“Yes, sir. We both know you can’t cure him,” said Lizzy. “But maybe you could build him a rocket ship so he can travel to someplace where he wouldn’t have to be sick anymore.”

“Lizzy,” Santa sighed.

“Please, Mr. Claus? You just have to do something for him.”

“You dear, sweet girl,” he said, shoulders slumped. “This isn’t something I can promise …”

“I know,” she said, defeated. “It’s okay. I knew you weren't the real Santa Claus anyway. What would the real Santa be doing in a mall a few weeks before Christmas?”

“What I was going to say, Lizzy, is that it isn’t something I can promise,” he continued. “But if you believe and I mean really, really believe with all your heart … maybe your wish will come true.”

“You really mean that?”

“It’s Christmas, Lizzy. We are celebrating the anniversary of the miracle of miracles.”

“Oh, thank you, Santa!” Lizzy exclaimed, turning to hug him. “I’ll believe. You’ll see. I’ll believe.”

“I have faith in both you and your brother,” said Santa. “In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the biggest rocket ship you’ve ever seen wasn’t waiting for you and your brother on Christmas Day!”

“Christmas Day? Oh no, that won’t do,” Lizzy said, pulling back. “That won’t do at all.”

“Why not?”

“They don’t know if my brother will make it to Christmas Day,” said Lizzy. “We need it much sooner than that.”

“I see,” Santa sighed again, cupping his chin in thought. “This really is a puzzle.”

“I know,” she said. “It isn’t something you can promise.”

“It doesn’t matter what I can or can’t promise, Lizzy,” said Santa, laying a finger to her heart. “All miracles start from the inside out. Don’t give up on your dreams.”

Lizzy didn’t say a word as she first stood up. The once short line to see Santa Claus had swelled from to two children to nearly twenty, ranging from toddlers being held by enthusiastic mothers and fathers to six-year-old kids with shopping lists spooling out of one hand while using the other to tug at their tired-eyed parents who had become far too practiced in the annual ritual to be engaged.

The length of this line, along with the growing impatience of those waiting, seemed to break Lizzy from her spell. Time was no longer standing still. The rest of the world was waiting.

“You’re not such a bad guy for a mall Santa,” she said. “Merry Christmas.” “Merry Christmas, Lizzy” he said. “Don’t forget. Miracles happen from the inside out.”

She didn’t say anything else nor did she look back over her shoulder as the merry tenor of Santa’s voice returned. He was asking the next kid in line a litany of questions with the same sing-song familiarity of seasons past. For weeks, she had prayed for her brother to be able to visit Santa and hear them too, but those prayers had gone unanswered.

“Did you tell Santa everything you wanted?” asked her mother. “Yes,” said Lizzy, avoiding eye contact.

“So what was at the top of your list?”

“Oh, you know,” said Lizzy. “I really want a gift card to Justice.”

 ***
This is the first of a four-part short for the holidays. If you would like to read the balance of "Once Upon A Red Rocket," you're invited to find it here on my fiction Facebook page. It's where I publish most "first look" fiction material from time to time. Good night, good luck, and Happy Holidays! 

Wednesday, December 2

The Accidental Hiatus After Ten Years. How Life Happens.

A few weeks ago, a long-time friend and colleague sent me a question via Facebook. It was startling to read but not because of the content. It was startling because my immediate response didn't feel right.

"Hey brother, did you quit blogging?"

"No" was my most immediate response but then I stopped myself from pressing send. I hadn't published a stitch of content in more than four weeks — my first sustained break from blogging in more than ten years. "No" just didn't seem to cut it, especially since I was asking myself the same question.

Did I quit blogging?

No, not really. It just happened. Life had become unexpectedly busy in the weeks leading up to my presentation at the NRPA 2015 Conference and never slowed down. It only accelerated. Between a whirlwind series of conferences and conventions, both parents having health scares, and a fully integrated work-life schedule, there wasn't any time left in the day. I decided to skip one week.

One week quickly escalated into two weeks. It was four weeks by the time my friend messaged me — an unexpected hiatus that I didn't have time to really address. Add four more missing weeks to it.

He didn't seem to mind. There may have even been a note of envy in the back of his head. He is coming up on the 10-year anniversary of his blog and thought giving himself permission to write and publish when he wants sounded pretty appealing. Never mind that my hiatus was never so intentional.

It will be going forward. Permission granted.

No, I am not going to quit blogging. I am, however, going to take a page from my friend's unwritten playbook to write and publish when I want without a second thought of maintaining a schedule. Sure, this might sound counter intuitive for anyone who knows anything about social media. Consistency, after all, is part of any well-executed communication plan (especially social media). I stand by it.

Except, here is the thing. My blog has never been part of a communication plan or distribution channel for my company. It could have been, but it wasn't. My goals were always more holistic within the context of education, experimentation, and engagement. Some of this still applies.

Some of it doesn't. While there will always be a place for articles and essays, the social media landscape has changed and it is on the verge of changing again. Social networks are mostly better places for engagement than blogs (even for those of us who lament the loss of long format thought exchanges that still happen but not often enough). Experimentation has mostly moved off blogs and onto other platforms and technologies (except for writing and thought exercises). And that leaves education, which is one reason why I'll never shutter the space. This has been and continues to be one of the best places to sketch ideas, receive feedback, and provide students of mine with extracurricular education — previews and supplements to material I've made part of my classes.

I'll likely spend more time in the classroom. Spring 2016.

Some of the best material I've contributed to the field for the better part of a decade has arguably come out my classrooms. Students bring in some of the most interesting case studies and questions — puzzles that inspire problem solving for the here and now or long-term future. And in the upcoming year, I'll find my feet planted firmly on two campuses.

I have four classes scheduled at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, during what I hope will be an interim schedule before continuing to build out a new Integrated Marketing Communication certificate program — with more than 40 different classes that would appeal to both working professionals and career explorers. The time is really right to introduce this program, but students are welcome to take any of the following in the interim.

Editing & Proofreading Your Work from 9 a.m. to noon on Feb. 6. This half-day program continues to be a staple for anyone interested in refining the written word by it making clear, concise, and grammatically correct. It focuses on all the essentials associated with solid writing mechanics.

Writing For Public Relations on Thursdays from Feb. 18 through April 21. For ten weeks, students learn to master a variety of writing styles and understand how best to apply them to news releases, fact sheets, biographical sketches, feature stories, media kits, and social media. Expect to write.

• Editing & Proofreading Your Work from noon to 3 p.m. on June 6. This is an encore session of the February class, except offered in the afternoon for students unable to attend a weekend session. The format is the same, but every class is different as it adapts to new people and perspectives.

Shaping Public Perception: Next Step Social Media from noon to 3 p.m. on June 25. When Social Media for Strategic Communication began to feel too mainstream, I knew it was time to expand beyond the confines of social media being a communication "medium" into a fully integrated and incredibly immersive multimedia strategy for public relations, marketing, advertising, and human resources. In a nutshell, this class explores what is happening and what is happening next.

Along with these classes, I have also been invited to teach (and accepted) a full semester course at the College of Southern Nevada. This experimental class cuts to the core of where communication is headed today. Employers are looking for a new generation of multi-disciplined professionals.

Writing For Design on Tuesdays from Jan. 19 through May 15. Search for class 35048 to enroll in a course designed to help designers master several modern writing styles that are in demand — copywriting, content marketing, and self-promotion across social networks and other media. This lecture-lab class will help students become familiar with message development, product differentiation, and brand voice while learning to understand how words and design converge.

With these five classes already slated for the spring, there will never be any shortage of topics to revisit from time to time, even if I no longer intend to keep a schedule. It is part of a bigger change.

The not-really-so-accidental hiatus. How times change.

I alluded to a direction a few years ago and I've stayed the course ever since. It came from the realization that the quantity of time we have is not as important as the quality. The thinking applies everywhere.

As I started to remake my life and profession in a very different fashion, I decided that I only had time for a handful of the very best clients I could find and not just any client I could find. This might sound as counter initiative as my opening graphs to anyone who ever wanted to build a business.

Except, here is the thing. I'm happy helping a few people build their businesses or organizations and no more than that. I'm not really looking to build another business of my own anymore. And this realization provides me a luxury that very few people get to enjoy until they are almost worn out.

Nowadays, I have to love my clients or they are not my clients. There are no exceptions. At the first sign of angst, I resign the account with no hard feelings. And, not surprisingly, for those relative few I keep close — I am increasingly passionate and proficient in everything we do. It's magical.

As I've written before: Everyone is driven by something. We can choose what drives us. I'm driven by helping a few great people who lead some amazing organizations, teaching a few students with limitless potential, living my life surrounded by the people who matter most, and carving out a few more hours out of my week so I can write stories that have been held hostage far too long by a fixed schedule. That's all there is and it's enough to fill me up — it's more than most people ever have.

How about you? If you could be driven by something, what would it be? And once you've settled on a few ideas, give yourself permission to ask why you aren't letting that desire drive you as if all that time you think you have in the world has almost run out. It had run out. Good night and good luck.

Wednesday, September 16

The Future Of Marketing Is Smart For Consumers And Parks

Whether you know it as the Internet of things, enchanted items, or smart objects, the convergence of technology and marketing and customer experience will be a technological revolution. Call it smart.

It will be smart in terms of the technologies that are being announced and introduced daily — smart clothing, force touch, or innovative sports analysis tools — and smart in terms of the portable, multimodal (sight, sound, touch, readable), and interactive content that will be both functional and valuable to consumers. And it will finally drive home the idea that marketing and the customer experience is the same — from the very first touch point to the decision to upgrade or resupply.

Shaping Public Perception - The Next Step In Social Media 

For a few hours on Wednesday, the next step in social media was very much on topic for the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) 2015 Annual Conference. It was one of the first opportunities I've had to share new insights into how marketers are going to adapt — and what they might learn from the psychological and sociological insights of Yuval Noah Harari and Donald Hoffman. Take a look.


While my published decks never contain all the content delivered during any educational session, one of the more theoretical premises I've been exploring to date suggests that if humans live with a dual reality (objective reality and conceptual reality) as Hoffman suggests and Harari alludes to as the fundamental skill set that allows us to cooperate with flexibility and in very large numbers, then it could be true that the marketing/branding/public relations (the conceptual reality of any product) of a product can account for as much as half the value (or perhaps more depending on the product).

I expect this will play out in the near future as new technologies, some of which are included in my deck, fuse communication efforts and customer experience. After all, value is rarely determined by the objective reality of an object. It is more often determined by a conceptual reality — the mythical made formula — that we collectively agree upon. Maybe. I'd love to know what you think.

A quick closing recap on the NRPA 2015 Conference. 

Aside from this theoretical thrust of my presentation, it's interesting to note that parks and recreation departments across North America are still struggling with the practicality and tactical ability of social media (like most organizations). Most questions during the Q&A portion of my session dealt not with what is next, but rather what could be done right now to address time famine, message mitigation, brand management, and the pressures of constant change.

I'll be giving each of these topics space in the upcoming weeks, providing more depth and resources than what I could provide in a few seconds from the stage. I hope this short series really helps.

Special thanks to the 250 professionals (and live streaming viewers) who attended my session out of about 7,000-9,000 conference attendees, NRPA, and long-time colleague Dirk Richwine. I had an absolutely fantastic time speaking at the conference and look forward to our next opportunity.

Wednesday, September 9

The Shrinking State Of Social Media

Since social media started to make a move toward the mainstream about ten years ago, the general direction was expansive. People wanted more of everything — more friends, more fans, more followers, and just more. In fact, 'more' is the model where most marketing plans are focused.

The market, however, has changed and the once ever-present quest for an expansive presence has already shown signs of contraction. As many as 36 percent of smartphone owners are finding smaller audiences with messaging apps such as WhatApp, Kik, iMessage, and Path. Snapchat and Wickr have seen an uptick in usage too — about 17 percent of smartphone owners use apps that delete messages.

Such platforms are especially more popular with young adults, ages 18 to 29. Among this group, almost half use messaging apps and 41 percent use apps that automatically delete messages. Even recently popular networks like Pinterest and Instagram have cooled off among social nomads despite marketers trying to retool social platform strategies. (Maybe they've cooled off because of them.)

More isn't much of an answer when most people want less. 

Sure, Facebook has become as innocuous as the Internet, with 72 percent of all adults with an account. (Twitter, Instagram, Linkedin, and Pinterest all hover around 25 percent.) But look at the reasons. Facebook does an excellent job creating the illusion of privacy while simultaneously shortening any marketers reach through targeted delivery and exposure limitations.

One would think marketers might take note. It's less, not more that usually wins for them on this social platform. More only happens when it contains a concept built on attraction (as opposed to broadcast). Take a look at 30 different campaigns and the common denominators are there.

• Successful campaigns are tied to something beyond digital.
• The initial distribution method is aimed at customer attraction.
• Most campaigns are built on engagement and participation.
• The content has appeal beyond its narrowly defined audience.

The lesson reads like one of the rules right out of copywriting school — less is more. And in this case, less is more because attraction marketing continues to beat out interruption marketing on a regular basis much like most people (except celebrities) are shrinking their networks to include a much smaller circle of friends — those they happen to meet in person and see somewhat regularly.

Not that this should surprise anyone. The emphasis on 'social' over 'media' was always the intent.

Wednesday, September 2

Why Do Marketers Still Struggle With Decision Making?

By most accounts, CMOs are increasing their organizational spending on social, mobile, and analytics. One recent study places this budgetary increase at 12.2 percent over the next year.

The increase is in addition to social media spending, which already accounts for more than 10 percent of most total marketing budgets. In five years, this same spending will eventually account for about 25 percent of most total marketing budgets. And none of this news should surprise anyone at all, especially with the increased attention that marketers are giving to the growth of online video.

Digital marketing and social media are mainstream even if measurement remains somehow elusive to marketers. 

What should surprise people instead is that marketers readily admit that they don't really know how to measure the outcome of their efforts. In fact, only 15 percent of CMOs say they have successfully proven a quantitative impact associated with their social media efforts. Conversely, 41.5 percent of marketers haven't been able to show any impact from their social media efforts. The mind boggles.

This apparently nagging inability to measure outcomes is a symptom and not the problem. The problem is how many organizations lack a marketing or communication plan and, even more commonly, how many lack good marketing or communication plans. If they did have good plans, measurement wouldn't be a problem as the key has always been to set realistic and measurable goals.

It's almost impossible to measure outcomes that aren't tethered to objectives. 

Likewise, it's almost impossible to not be able to measure outcomes if they are tethered to realistic, measurable, and specific objectives. And ideally, those objectives will be drawn from the organization's mission, vision, and strategic plan.

Why is this important? Because specific business goals — along with considerations like product or service life cycle, market share, consumer base, competition, proximity, resources and self-imposed restraints — lead to very specific marketing and communication goals. Consider just a few of them:

• Introduce new products or services. While awareness is worthwhile, introducing new products and services means more than people knowing something exists. Communication objectives can be grounded in outcomes like market position, brand recognition, and value proposition retention.

• Capture market share. Given market share is a key indicator of competitiveness among competitors and market viability. Subway, for example, focused on market share when it stopped defining its market as sandwich shops and started attacking the quick service market.

• Become an industry leader. Most companies that strive to be industry leaders market the influence of the leaders and knowledge of their industry more than they do their products or services.  Becoming a trusted source increases credibility and results in significant market advantage.

• Improve customer loyalty. Organizations that want to increase customer loyalty invest in marketing that reinforces individual relationships, personalization, and the best possible customer experience. Some include incentives, but only those that reinforce positive customer experience.

• Increase product profitability. Sometimes reining in a marketing plan, pushing loss leaders, or reducing non-productive expenses can mean more to a company than expansion. The same objective can also include add-on items that require no additional marketing and well-timed follow-up sales.

• Increase gross sales or revenue. Increasing sales (units sold) and revenue (money made) can sometimes be likened to a throwaway objective in that sales and revenues are often the natural outcome of every objective listed. So if you include this objective, make it specific — X percent of increase in the marketing budget will generate X percent increase in sales within three or six months.

• Become a good corporate citizen. Responsible corporate citizens that support the communities in which they operate often benefit from increased visibility, credibility, and opportunity. Outreach programs can be especially effective when they lift up communities, creating the most potential customers.

• Foster a strong corporate culture. Whether the objectives is tied to acquiring top talent or is more market oriented in better meeting the needs of the customer, a strong corporate culture pays dividends by positioning the company from its people out. Allocating more to internal communication can help.

• Nurture ideas and innovation. When companies make this their objective, marketing enjoys a pretty clear directive that their content and creative ought to aspire toward the same goals. Apple used to be the best example in marketing innovation but not so much nowadays.

• Increase store or website traffic. If this is the objective, it almost always has to be tied to some residual effect such as lead generation, conversation, or community building. The challenge with the concept is to keep it relevant so the traffic counts don't lose customers for life in the process.

• Shape public opinion. If we remember that the primary objective of any marketing and communication program is to change behavior or public opinion, then it stands to reason our objectives ought to define what change we anticipate. Once launched, measure the change.

Naturally, these objectives (most of which would need to be fine tuned and more specific to work) only scratch the surface. There are dozens and hundreds of organization-specific objectives that could be taken into consideration, including proximity, community culture, competition, etc. (For example, a marketing plan for an Asian restaurant in China Town would look very different from a plan in a suburb without one or a farm town without many dining options.)

In fact, these variables (and marketing's unwillingness to accept they exist) are the primary cause for confusion. Too many marketers are looking for some holy grail of marketing plan and outcome measurement that somehow manages to cast the whole of marketing (and each of its tactics) into a plug and play template. But outside of making a few marketing consultants rich on 10-step books in the short term and shifting marketing budgets to social, they work for relatively few organizations.

So before your organization jumps on social, mobile, and analytics wagon, make sure any budget increases are tied to strategic objectives that can be readily measured. Who knows? You might discover a different communication vehicle for your company, one your competitors would never consider.

Wednesday, August 26

Psychology And Neuromarketing Can Be Fallible. So what?

There has been plenty of buzz up about the Reproducibility Project, which aimed to validate about 100 psychology science studies by attempting to reproduce the studies. Marketers should take note.

For those who place their faith in scientific-like testing (and big data), the findings of the Reproducibility Project ought to be astonishing. Two-thirds of the original studies tested proved fallible and even those that could be replicated demonstrated irregular statistical variations. Specifically, the magnitude of the effect tested was frequently half as small as the original finding.

Never place too much faith in any marketing formula. 

Sure, there is plenty to be gained by running A/B tests in an attempt to convert your business thinking from "we think" to "we know." There are many successful examples. But just because the results of testing turn out one way or another doesn't ensure success. A/B testing isn't a sure thing in marketing.

The truth is that we must stop treating single studies as unassailable truths, especially when other variables could be influencing the outcome of any finding, outcome, or assumption. True scientific thinking, after all, comes with a critical mindset rather than a yielding one. And we need to be more critical now than ever before, especially as people attempt to manipulate our thinking daily.

You can find evidence everywhere. Journalists are more likely to write attention-grabbing narratives first and then find examples to fill in the blanks than ever before. Scientists are more likely to build studies based upon biased theories than rely on objective observations. And marketers, whether they admit it or not, generally attempt to validate their work more than they produce better outcomes.

And no, it isn't always intentional. Anyone who has ever gone to an eye doctor only to be prescribed an inferior prescription knows how easy it is for mistakes to happen. No matter how meticulous the doctor or technician might be in the office, you eventually have to try it in the real world.

It recently happened to me. In the office, it seemed monovision — wearing a distance vision contact in one eye and a near vision correction in the other — was a suitable option for my slight presbyopia. In the real world, it didn't work at all. Too much of my interaction with the world relies on intermediate vision for monovision to be effective. The same thing can happen in scientific studies.

There are reasons humans are mostly unpredictable. 

If you truly want to understand psychology and sociology as it applies to marketing, you have to make a real effort to understand humans. First and foremost, you have understand that humans are the only creatures on this planet that form flexible and scalable cooperatives based on abstract concepts.

Yuval Noah Harari, author of the international bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, is especially intuitive on this point. As he explains it, bees and ants can form scalable cooperatives but aren't flexible in their ability to change their social structure. Whereas chimps and dolphins are flexible in how they cooperate, they are only able to do so in relatively small numbers.

The reason, it seems to me, it that humans are also the only creatures on this planet to operate with a dual reality, a perceptional concept studied in depth by Donald Hoffman, professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine. In sum, humans perceive an objective reality (what is true) and a conceptual reality (what we accept as truth) at the same time.

For example, the money in your wallet is a piece of paper. The concept that it has value is a fiction that we have collectively agreed to accept as truth. And, to be clear, it is this dual reality often discussed by Hoffman that provides us our unique ability to form flexible and scalable cooperatives.

Marketing and communication, at their core, only has one purpose: to change behavior. And as such, marketers usually try to change behavior by drawing attention to an objective reality or attempting to elevate (or diminish) a conceptual reality. And what makes this especially interesting is that in the last decade, especially with the advent of social media (and likely to become more prevalent with the rise of augmented and virtual reality), is that marketers spend more time targeting the conceptual reality.

So what? The greater the emphasis on conceptual reality, the greater the unpredictability of testing because humans, throughout history, have proven to be consistently inconsistent. And in knowing this, maybe it is time to treat your approach to the science side of marketing as an exercise in adjustment and not in the collection of unassailable truths that will one day be proven false. Good luck.

Wednesday, August 19

Everything Can Scale, Especially Mediocrity.

When marketers talk about automation, they don't always see the danger in it. Maybe it's because select benefits — lead generation, response counts, data tracking — outweigh most shortcomings.  But then when you move the principles of automation to something even more personal, like health care, it begins to feel frightening.

Health care professional Andy De Lao knows it. He warns that what we're scaling in health care isn't efficiency as much at it is mediocrity. Where care used to be extraordinary, he says, systems are making it "extra ordinary." You can even hear it in the vernacular. Terms like lean, defects, efficiency, output, capacity, scale, workflow, and productivity were all borrowed from industrial manufacturing.

Health care isn't alone. Those words creep up into almost everything nowadays — marketing, culinary arts, education. They seem to be everywhere. And sometimes, not every time, mediocrity follows.

Somewhere along the way, scalability becomes a setback. 

The last time I ate something from McDonald's (several years ago), I was keenly aware that it wasn't the restaurant that Ray Kroc built around the original quick service concept of Dick and Mac McDonald. Sure, phrase like quality, service, cleanliness, and value still exist, but with very different meanings than the original model.

Quality is now couched in comparison, the service is slower, the cleanliness sterile, and the concept of value somehow out of whack with the reality of the product. Half of the menu feels overpriced. Half of the menu feels cheap. What's worse is that the executive team can't seem to pinpoint the problem.

The problem isn't one thing that prevents McDonald's from getting its mojo back. It's everything. What we're witnessing almost every day at the chain is nothing less than a brand hemorrhage.

And the culprit? Scalability and mediocrity finally caught up with the clown. The systems that once made it a brilliant brand have crashed as it traded in a little on the phrases that made it famous.

Isn't this the same problem we're seeing with health care, where planning target volumes, designing intake forms, and timing medical consultations overtake the core function of patient care? Isn't this the same issue with education, where process is starting to beat out innovation? Isn't this the same challenge marketers have when attempting to understand the difference between automation and absenteeism in social media and content marketing?

I think Andy De Lao is right. There is some optimal point where art and efficiency can coexist. He applied it to his field of health care, but see it fits almost everywhere. Nothing great can scale forever.

The answer is simple: Automate the mundane, but not the art. 

Geoff Livingston gets it. He recently traded in writing columns for articles on his blog, noting that it helps set it apart from the more common opinion/posturing pieces that make up most blogs. And while that might seem like an odd analogy for health care, education, and culinary arts, it still fits.

There is nothing wrong with automation that schedules when you share articles, includes a stable of authors you really respect, or even makes you more efficient. But when you begin to phone in whatever if you are offering — blog post, patient care, or college class — mediocrity takes hold.

You see, there are some things that a restaurant kiosk or social scheduling or online class cannot replace. While all of them have merit, the real magic still happens with the human connection — spontaneous sparks that lead us light years away from whatever some mediocre outline prescribed.

Wednesday, August 12

Content Marketing Is Changing Advertising, Not Killing It

Ten years ago, ClickZ published an article that claimed advertising is dying. It's been a common theme there for the better part of a decade. The most recent claim was made just a few days ago.

ClickZ isn't alone. Fortune recently ran an article that cited the exponential growth of ad blocking and how some companies are trying to find workarounds that mitigate the impact (if you can imagine). Others are focused on specific networks where advertising is its own worst enemy, like Facebook.

These articles are all well and good to make you think, but most of them miss the mark in understanding what makes advertising work. Advertising isn't a medium or reliant on any particular media. Fundamentally, advertising is the art of persuasion and it has been around a very long time.

"Advertising is fundamentally persuasion and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art." — William "Bill" Bernbach, founder of Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB).

As such, you can't kill advertising anymore than you can kill communication. All you can do is change its trust for the times — from attention grabbing special effects to emotionally authentic — and alter its distribution model — from mass media broadcast to social, mobile, digital, and environmentally interactive.

But hasn't the field always done that? The Golden Age of Advertising wasn't spurred on by the birth of television and mass media print alone. It was largely the result of the creative department becoming more important than account executives alone, with mass media serving as a spark only because it meant that a great concept had significantly more reach than any other time in history.

Given that digital has expanded the potential reach of mass media, a second Golden Age of Advertising could be pinned on content marketing, social media, and next generation technologies that will put digital at our fingertips almost everywhere. Maybe all advertising needs is to get back to its roots to be relevant and that means getting back to the creation of great concepts.


The M6 razor commercial is an excellent example. After being freed from the constraints of a 30-second television spot or a single page of print, the creative team behind the concept was able to tell a story that can hold the viewer's interest for three minutes while delivering two persuasive messages.

For my purposes, this 3-minute spot includes a third. While it's always easy to think content is king, it's really the great concept that remains sovereign. One unforgettable message has a real impact.

It also touches on what is wrong with turning out terabyte after terabyte of forgettable content. There is no great concept behind the bulk of content marketing and there needs to be if we want to benefit from the art of persuasion — the heart and soul of advertising. Without it, we're winking in the dark.

Wednesday, August 5

Are There Too Few Analysts In The Field Of Journalism?

There is one place broadcast news continues to beat out print journalism online and it's about time print-to-digital migrants took notice. People aren't looking for news outlets anymore. They are looking for informed experts — analysts, informants, and influencers — who add commentary and consult to their observations of world events and breaking news.

For many journalists, especially those hanging on to the last thread of objective journalism, the concept sends shivers up their spines. It's something different being a columnist or critic than a hard news journalist — writers who prefer to be seen not for their style but for the masthead they make home.

But that's not what people want. They don't want to find the same news in every paper. They don't want truth in media if that means vanilla reporting. And they certainly don't want forgettable bits of top-down information that can be spun out by anyone no matter how hard print tries to maintain it.

Print-to-digital migrants need people that the public can identify.

Sooner or later, print-to-digital migrants have to realize that their decision (some of them, anyway) to cut costs by letting all their veteran journalists go in favor of young, cheap, and desperate writers was a mistake. They needed to double down and transform those old school journalists into quasi-celebrities, a status once reserved for columnists, investigative reporters, and Gonzo journalists alone.

Except, unlike some of their more biased brethren, they need to usher in an era of impassioned objectivists — journalists who aren't afraid to look at the world the way it is (rather than the way they want it to be) and still turn a phrase that causes you to turn your head or wreck you gut or shake you awake. They need to write so well, in fact, that we want to know them by name and trust them to shape our brains.

By shape, I don't mean the advocacy and affirmation news that broadcast serves up on daily basis. What I mean is striving for stories that leave people so deeply informed about a topic that they can form their own opinions. What I mean is writing articles that aren't afraid to dig deeper into topics so we may transcend the tit-for-tat tactics of sourcing two opposing viewpoints who only talk around the surface of the subject. And what I mean is raising the bar rather than insulting the public's intelligence.

How to make print media relevant again with modern reporting.

Just as news publishers are learning in Pakistan, news organizations are learning all over the world: The "power of the press" shrinks exponentially when the public can buy digital ink by the barrel too. In other words, reach ceases to be a value proposition when companies and campaigns frequently beat out the circulation of most major news organizations. So maybe it's time to change it all together.

• Develop more specialists. Whereas news reporters used to be generalists, the public craves to get their information from specialists. This is one of the reasons some research firms have thrived in recent years — they publish content by passionate analysts who are informed, visible, and objective.

Journalists can easily take a page from their playbook or any number of 'new media' publishers that began delivering better content in some verticals than the dailies did, starting almost a decade ago. These people didn't just report the news and other people's views, they provided real analysis.

• Market semi-public reporters. Of course, content wasn't the only place new media started to crush some dailies. Almost every new media publisher and content provider won on personality too. Instead of providing authoritative reporting from under a masthead, the public was treated to a snapshot of the people behind the words.

Much like broadcast has known for years, the messenger can be just as important to the public as the message. In fact, most of the public will even forgive openly biased reporting as long as they feel like they know the person behind it. Ergo, the reporter IS part of the value proposition nowadays.

• Content needs to be intuitive. Ask most people about the ideal length of web content and most of them will skew short. It isn't really true, but plenty of people make a great case for short. Most folks only want a few graphs that sum up everything, they say.

What they really want is tiered content — short introductions that allow them to discern whether or not it's a topic that interests them enough to dig deeper. In fact, I've met more and more people who tell me they use media outlets like Newsy to scan the content and then turn to The New York Times or The Washington Post for in-depth coverage in an attempt to create a DIY hybrid of content agility.

• Multimedia wins the Internet. Sometimes people want to stream clips and other times they want to scan headlines with pics, but they want so much more from anything they decide to dig into deeper. Just as it is having an impact on content marketing it is true for journalism too.

Different people learn differently so they want their content to be visual (see), auditory (told), kinesthetic (touch), or language based (read/write) as it suits them. So knowing this, it only makes sense that digital journalism needs to be multimodal whenever it makes sense — reinforcing whatever story that happens to interest them with maps, infographics, interactive displays, video clips, animation, or anything that make sense.

Maybe all we need are authentic journalists with dazzling content.

While most newspapers have been busy chasing eyeballs to make themselves look more viable than they are, they should have be reinventing their value proposition instead. Consider the obvious.

What if more print-to-digital migrants hired authentic reporters that people could trust to deliver passionate stories that could help us better understand the world? And, what if they did it in such a way that we could preview the content before immersing ourselves in interactive multimodal content?

While no one can be certain, odds are that this kind of publication wouldn't have to worry too much about circulation. In fact, when you look at how people cobble multiple sites together to get the same effect, they wouldn't have to worry about revenue either. Journalism would become relevant again.

Wednesday, July 29

Technology Is Transforming Education Right Before Our Eyes

Education is experiencing a tech revolution, but it's only a single facet of our near future landscape. As much as some standardization is seen as an opportunity to level the educational playing field, technology is simultaneously making education and educators accessible for anyone who wants more.

Some parents, myself included, are becoming keenly aware of the opportunities technology affords our children as it pertains to education. I became especially attentive to it two years ago after discovering that my daughter's reading proficiency wasn't keeping up with her course work.

This summer, thanks in part to a reading program I developed for her, she is reading The Hobbit, which is three to five years above her grade level. Sure, she still struggles with some of the words, but that's the point. I want her to feel challenged.

In fact, since then, her summer education program has expanded beyond reading. Between sites like education.com, skillshare, and code.org, there is no shortage of educational content. It keeps her balanced between free play and other activities like art camps or softball clinics or guitar lessons.

It also keeps her up to speed on core subjects while introducing her to skills that she will be unlikely to learn in school (like coding or graphic design) at her age. And for me, as a university instructor, it provides a sense of how to improve my own classes as well as education in general.

Five opportunities for the next generation in education.

• Standardization will lose out to innovation. Given that an overemphasis in standardized education can lead to stagnation as the bureaucracy that oversees curriculum becomes too slow to adopt new concepts, a next generation solution will help educators get ahead of a subject curve. Best practice lesson plans could eventually populate state or national education centers, with the best of them raising the bar on what the nation considers "standard."

Teachers would be given much more flexibility if administrators received grants and additional funding for best practice lesson plans produced by their schools. The system could also provide incentives for teachers to innovate, giving them a reason to think of their jobs as year round.

• Educators will be rewarded for engaging students. As technology continues to remove proximity from the equation, administrators will discover that their educators are assets to the institutional brand. As it happens, the surge in filling courses with adjunct professors to save money will shift toward attracting top talent that the high school, college, or university can market.

After all, when you can take an online writing course from James Patterson for $90, it makes it much more difficult to justify the $600 course taught by an MFA graduate. As a result, universities will have to get back to the business of bringing in marketable talent — professors who can excite students.

• Liberal arts will evolve into liberal tracks. There continues to be pressure to transform the educational system into something much more vocational. The push to create more vocational schools is mostly attributed to STEM education programs, especially technology, as more people see the field as being future proof in terms of career opportunities.

While this is true, some professors are seeing some slippage in other skill sets that used to be covered as part of a liberal arts education. Specifically, tech savvy students sometimes struggle with public speaking, presentation, psychology, communication, business, and other skills that are associated with liberal arts. New classes (including history and philosophy) will be reintroduced as mandatory electives.

• Employers will reassess how they see candidates. Isolating job candidates based on holding a bachelor's or master's degree (or years of experience) will be supplanted with new measurements. Educational achievement will be balanced to consider an applicant's body of work (such as their programs, applications, campaigns) and ancillary continuing education in addition to their degree.

For example, candidates who have completed emergency management courses offered by FEMA will be recognized as having more educational experience than those who took one or two public disaster communication classes as part of their liberal arts degree. Likewise, a design portfolio or computer program could prove much more predictive in choosing the right candidate.

• Initiative will become a most valued commodity. While initiative will likely never become a class on its own, it will eventually become one of the most sought-after attributes for candidates to demonstrate throughout their educational careers. As such, it needs to be baked into education.

Those students (and, subsequently, candidates) who have a track record for meeting whatever "standards" are set and then go on to do more — sports, extracurricular, leadership, advanced students — will quickly discover that they will have more choices in choosing their educational paths and careers. Where education can stimulate such a trait is in creating a layered approach to education where students can take on additional projects or course material beyond what's required.

My daughter is on two education tracts — one at school and one at home. 

It's easy to become excited by the potential for technology in education, but it isn't technology alone that creates a new landscape. It will take teachers to develop new programs and find suitable methods of application for a variety of audiences. It will take programmers and designers to make the material feel intuitive, and it will take parents to offset everything their children can learn.

For my daughter, her summer program includes math, reading, and writing with science, history, and art on alternating days. In addition to these fundamentals, she also invested a half-hour in guitar and a half-hour in coding before her days ended with softball or baseball practice. She loved every minute.

While some people were taken aback by her enthusiasm for summer homework, she was as passionate about learning as she was for some of the incentives. And that, more than any other measure, reinforced to me that innovation, engagement, diversity, integration, and initiative are what's needed most in education. As for technology, it's potentially the best tool to help us deliver on it.

Wednesday, July 22

Five Steps To Make An Influencer Instead Of Marketing To One

While marketers continue to reach out to social media influencers in the hopes of earning easy traction, it takes much more than a popular or pretty face to capture key performance indicators. Sure, there is plenty of evidence to support influencers have an edge over brand content. But so what?

It doesn't mean you always have to pony up dollars for celebrities and semi-public people to increase brand exposure. You could take an organic approach in attracting third-party voices around your brand and the process to do so will result in deeper, more meaningful relationships.

In the long term, it could also help inoculate your brand against the rising cost of social media stars as brands compete for the same talent and make influencer marketing akin to any other media buy. Of course, this doesn't mean anyone should bow out all together. Influencers have their place.

All it means is that marketers need to remember that a "nobody" can be just as influential as the current somebody. The right person with the right passion only needs a lift to gain real attention.

How to make a topic influencer in five steps.

• Engagement. Discover customers, advocates, and topic enthusiasts who have an authentic passion for your product or service. They may not be "popular" but their passion for your brand is infectious in ways that paid or perked influencers will never deliver. Give these fans some real attention by letting them know your organization noticed.

• Education. Every exchange is an opportunity to learn more about your clients while they learn more about your product or service. Successful professionals have always relied on the art of conversation to learn more about their clients and find new ways to provide real value. Take it a step further online and help people with an interest in your industry become experts.

• Exposure. Almost everyone appreciates a call out for something they say, write, or share online. When they say it about you, make sure you take it a step further than a thank you. Share and provide some context into why it is worthwhile to your organization's audience. If it happens to be about your product or service, even better. Third-party endorsements don't have to be from celebrities.

• Exclusivity. There is no better way to make someone an overnight influencer than giving them something in advance of everyone else. It doesn't always matter what that might be — it could be some news, a video clip, an invitation, or a working demo. The fact they have it first will move them to the head of the class — even if nobody saw them as an influencer before.

• Endorsement. Third-party endorsements don't happen in one direction. As several influencers are nurtured from the ground up, any organization can call them out as rising stars in the industry. Boosting their credibility as someone who knows your products or services as well as (or better than) your organization will lift them to be on par with almost anyone considered an influencer today.

Many of the influencers that organizations want to appease today got their start in much the same way. Nobody really noticed them until an organization or other so-called influencers gave them a lift with a call out, conversation, or mutually beneficial exposure. For many after that, a singular semi-exclusive offer (ranging from cameras to glasses and software to soda) catapulted them upward.

Even those who had the benefit of building a personal brand on the back of a big brand followed a similar path. The only real difference is that the organization accelerated the steps, with their employment or affiliation acting as an immediate endorsement. It doesn't take all that much.

So instead of only thinking in terms of influencer marketing — how to reach existing influencers — organizations need to start thinking in terms of influencer making too. Where aspiring influencers make a big difference is that their brand affinity and the strength of their relationship with a smaller pool of followers puts them in a prime position to quickly build an audience with a level of authenticity that few professional influencers retain over time — at least with the same semblance of passion.

Wednesday, July 15

Specialization Is At The Crossroads Of Tech And Design

As tempting as it might be, don't count the Apple watch out yet. Despite the cottage industry created to deride its entry into the wearables category, sales are steady even if the expectations were off.

The Apple watch was never going to see the same kind of adoption that the iPhone did. And if you thought it might, then you don't understand anything about watches. One size could never fit all. 

If anything, the opposite holds true. The evolution of technology and communication isn't ubiquitous generalization. It's specialization, with the caveat of collaboration — hardware that emphasizes one or two features well while providing access to select applications currently associated with phones.

The Marshall London, The Copenhagen Wheel, And The Leica Q.

There is no shortage of specialization beginning to take hold in the marketplace. And while many of them can be equated a luxury segment, emerging markets a fueling new luxury buyers and their influence over consumer behavior is spreading toward design and specialization. 
  
The Marshall London is an exquisite looking Android Lollipop specially designed for music lovers. Some features include dual headphone jacks, five-band equalizer, and a gold scroll wheel for volume. There is also a dedicated processor for high resolution audio (including FLAC files) at the core of it.

The Copenhagen Wheel is hardware that transforms ordinary bicycles into hybrid e-bikes. But more than that, it transforms any bike into a smart bike, capable of adjusting your workout based on environmental conditions, conveying real-time traffic and road conditions, and even giving you a boost when you need it most.


The Leica Q is a high-end, full-frame camera with a 24MP sensor and no anti-aliasing filter. The design is classic, but the camera doesn't compromise on modern tech specs. The interface enables photographers to use a touch screen or the lens and still delivers the fastest autofocus of any impact full-frame camera. A new WiFi feature also allows for remote shooting from a smart phone.

All three illustrate a shift away from total market disruption and the emergence of tech specializations that fall in line with the convergence of communication and the customer experience. Expect to see such specialization in future renditions of wearable tech too. 

People don't want a fully functional iPhone on their wrists as much as they want a classic timepiece that can also put their database on any screen they happen to direct it toward. But short of that, they are happy with wearables that do only one thing very well too.

Technology and design will reverse the move toward generalization. 

As Apple learns that the design of any watch needs to be significantly more malleable and personal than their initial offering, there may be a reassurance of interest in digital technology. The Apple Watch is certainly a step in the right direction. Now all we need are watches that are watches first (but can power up a display screen too) much like the Marshall London is a music phone, the Leica Q is a camera, and the Copenhagen Wheel is a wheel. And yet, they are so very much more.

Wednesday, July 8

Emerging Markets And Wealth Are Changing Consumer Behavior

While some luxury brands continue to express interest in courting Generation Y, a demographic loosely defined as those born between 1977 and 1994 in the United States, other brands are setting their sights on another segment all together. They see the next surge in luxury consumers not confined to American Millennials but driven by emerging markets such as India and South Africa.

One new study, Wealth X, sees India producing as many as 437,000 millionaires by 2018 (and doubling again by 2023).The nation also has a young, well-educated population with high levels of entrepreneurship and business ownership, underpinned by a well-developed legal system.

Wealth growth in Africa — especially markets such as South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya — continues to be driven by a naturally entrepreneurial population at an annual rate of over 10 percent. Not only are those markets rich in natural resources, but they also have a new foundation for technological innovation.

In addition, the study predicts Iran, Turkey, and Mexico will become economic bright spots among global markets. These markets will continue to be influenced by western European and North American definitions of luxury (including a shift from physical luxury to experiential luxury.)

Five behavioral shifts expected from emerging markets. 

Hyper-Localization. Although the world is shrinking, wealthy consumers are identifying with the cities where they work and live (and not necessarily their countries). As a result, brands need to prepare for an increasingly nonlinear development of economies and wealth creation as well as the important role proximity advertising and marketing will play in reaching those new millionaires.

New Frontiers. An increase in new wealth will continue to drive a growing early adopter segment hungry for new experiences. In addition to new frontier experiences such as space tourism and global investment opportunities cited in the study, pay attention to augmented and virtual reality space.

Luxury Experiences. Millennials are not the only population segment that is more interested in experience over products. The rich in emerging markets are increasingly shifting luxury consumption away from product purchases to lavish experiences like extreme locations and underwater holidays.

Hyper-Personalization. As well as fundamental rarity, personalization is expected to become the second major driver of exclusivity in the next decade. This will continue to manifest in tailored and unique products as well as one-off experiences.

Privacy and Intimacy. There will be an increasing desire for privacy among the wealthy in the future, yet at the same time a desire for greater intimacy among the select providers they trust. As a brand is truly defined by the relationship between itself and its customers, the newly rich will look for near flawless experiences from a shrinking pool of brands they trust.

These behavioral shifts will have a profound effect on brands. 

These are not the only shifts expected in the attitudes and psychology of the emerging wealthy. The study predicts those joining the ranks of the wealthy will become increasingly concerned about the economy, geopolitics, wealth preservation, privacy, and health care options.

With the recent financial crisis still fresh in their minds, they will be keenly sensitive to issues such as wealth preservation and the return on investment in every area of their lives from financial holdings to how they spend family holidays. At the same time, as wealth continues to become globalized, there will be an increased demand for personalization with design eclipsing technology and exclusivity defined by something other than price point alone.

The Wealth-X Part II study, which covers the next 10 years of wealth and luxury, is currently available without a registration barrier. In review, many of the concepts presented in the study are not confined to having an impact on luxury brands alone. As an emerging class of globalized rich continues to emerge, their behaviors will have a significant influence over consumer expectation on all organizations — especially in hyper-localized minded cities with increasingly unique identities.

Marketers hoping to find opportunities in behavioral shifts ahead need to begin focusing on proximity, flexibility, exclusivity, and improving the customer experience. Entrepreneurs need to look toward new frontiers that create entirely new markets — space travel, oceanic exploration, virtual reality, near-invisible energy production, and biotechnology among them.

Wednesday, July 1

What Marketers Really Need To Know About Silly Cat Videos

When describing the state of the Internet today, it's all too easy for marketers to see silly cat videos as the polar opposite of mental stimulus (myself included). And in doing so, marketers miss the point.

The popularity of silly cat videos has nothing to do with the type of content people want to consume. Their popularity has everything to do with how people want content to make them feel.

New research supports this supposition. After surveying nearly 7,000 Internet users on Internet cat consumption, researcher Jessica Gall Myrick discovered the motivations behind it and emotional benefit it delivers. People mostly watch cat videos as a means of mood management because of their potential to improve their mood. In fact, even those who use them as an excuse to procrastinate tend to temper any post-viewing guilt with feel-good fuzziness, as viewers describe their post-viewing mood as hopeful, happy, and content even if they felt anxious, annoyed, or sad before watching them.

Marketers need to pay better attention to how they make people feel. 

There is no shortage of causes that deserve consideration, topics primed to produce social outrage, or advertising that aims at creating feelings of scarcity (ads that aim to create feelings of fear, inadequacy, or make people feel unknowledgeable). Most of it, not unlike media coverage, is commonly negative or neutral. The net outcome is not surprising — it makes people feel bad or, more commonly, nothing at all.

Sooner or later, you have to wonder: Is the marketing content your organization produces adding to the anxiety or helping make people hopeful? Are you aligned with brands that promote happiness like Apple (innovation), Coke (happiness), Lowe's (empowerment) and Amazon (simplicity) or struggling   with ads that aim to demean, disparage, or attack others? Do you leave people wondering why they need your product or do you have the sense that somehow your product or service makes things better?


Sure, there are cases where negative advertising can work, especially if it is designed to capitalize on contempt for a perceived adversary. But such tactics are time sensitive to the cultural perceptions such as a decades long run of "dumb dad" ads. And social media makes for several splendid fails every year.

Don't get me wrong. The point here isn't to scrub away any rough edges if it fits. The point is to ask yourself what emotions your content is or isn't tapping into and making the appropriate adjustment in much the same way Charles Revson once did as the pioneering cosmetics executive behind Revlon.

"In the factory we make cosmetics. In the store we sell hope," Revson once said. 

Hope and happiness are powerful promises, ones that underscore many successful brands. They also cut to the quick of what motivates people in B2B and B2C spaces. Consumers want to make their lives and the world around them a little better. So do business owners. All of them might have a different outtake on what objectives best accomplish those overarching goals (comfort or exhilaration, opportunity or security), but almost all of them are rooted in hope and happiness.

When companies and content creators can't deliver on either, people turn to more than two million silly cat videos (2014) that have chalked up more than 26 billion views. Why? Not because marketers need to load their stream with silly cat videos but because these cats can deliver what most content misses — a few moments of mood managing happiness (even when these heroes look a bit grumpy).

Wednesday, June 24

The Most Powerful Brands Have Always Been Agile

Marketing and communication has a way of being reinvented over and over again, with each new and unapologetic rendition billed as a break from a seemingly blind and rigid tradition. Except they're nothing of the sort. Despite keeping things feeling fresh, most reinvention is historical revisitation.

Take some of the recent discussion revolving under brands, with the key concept being that a brand must be agile, adaptable, and seek out opportunity as opposed to a voice as personified by a logo. The argument makes sense, until you consider that the definition isn't accurate and the new idea not fresh.

The agile brand concept has been around about a century. 

Brand is not an identity, even if some marketers confuse it as such. Brand is (and has always been) the relationship between a product and its customer, as Phil Dusenberry, former chairman of BBDO Worldwide, once described it. And just like all relationships, they have to change with the times.

Oversimplified, this has always led organizations to make one of three choices. They can either adapt the relationship to meet the changing needs of aging customers; attempt to confine their relationship to a specific demographic, hopefully capture new customers to replace those who no longer identify with the product; or find new customers with whom they hope to define an entirely new relationship.

This is why (until recently) Revlon matured its brand (adapt), Nike rarely wavers in hitting the sweet spot between emerging athletes and professionals who know (demographic), and Volkswagen traded in its cool for mainstream (new relationships). It's also why RadioShack continues to struggle as a brand despite the buyout. The marketers on that team continue to mistake identity for brand, which consisted of a DIY crowd that the chain had long ignored and neglected. They want a second shot.

It also explains why entire markets can be disrupted like Zipcar, Uber, and Airbnb have done to the car rental, taxi cab, and hotel industries respectively. When organizations adopt an industry standard over a true brand relationship (e.g., airlines, fast food, grocery chains) then the customers will eventually begin to make purchasing decisions based on price or convenience instead of any relationship. Or, as in the case of the examples cited, look for someone to shake things up.

How to build an agile brand that keeps pace with change. 

The modern brand model isn't "modern" as much as it's a time-tested revisitation of a proven model. A successful brand fulfills its relationship with a customer based upon its ability to deliver on a brand promise that the customer values. As long as the organization delivers on that promise (and the customer values it), the relationship will be strong enough to weather any short-term challenges.

In addition, the organization has to be prepared for change: poised to change with the customers it has acquired or be prepared to let them go while acquiring news ones or being ready to reinvent its brand promise for a different kind of relationship with (possibly) different customers. And in every case, the value of a brand promise will almost always be based upon the organization's willingness to find contrasts between its products and services and the competition, giving customers a real choice.

And if some people don't like your contrast? No problem. Not everyone needs to be your customer as long as those who are your customers remain satisfied loyalists. They'll work hard to help you find like-minded customers — the single most valuable reward any organization can hope to earn.

Wednesday, June 17

Five Practices To Put Some Strategic Back Into Social PR

Public relations is in a self-selected state of change and the driving force is clearly social media. As many as 81 percent of communicators now believe that public relations can no longer operate without social media despite 64 percent considering it more superficial than traditional media. Wow.

Many professionals find those statistics frightening for two reasons. As social media consumes more and more of a public relations professional's day, the more those pros feel as superficial as their task work. And as more public relations professionals include social media as part of their primary practice because they must, more of them break away from the tenets of public relations in favor of measures that are much more akin to tactical marketing. Some, arguably, have become marketers.

While there is nothing wrong with that per se, the emphasis on tactical work has consequences. I've warned about several such problems many times before. But more than that, the way social media is being practiced tends to take public relations practitioners further way from strategic thinking, which was the quality that provided the profession real substance.

How can public relations channel strategic communication again?

1. Refocus On Relations. With all the pressure to increase impressions or go viral via social media, it's all too easy to forget the real stakeholders. By crafting communication with particular publics, special interests, or industry influences in mind, you can make deeper, longer lasting impressions.

Sometimes the best content isn't designed to generate leads as much as to deliver value to niches that have already expressed an interest in your products and services. If they appreciate it, there's a good chance they'll share their experience or your story— referring qualified leads to you anyway.

2. Stop Dialing Up Content. Sure, automation has its place across public relations and social media, but absenteeism can cannibalize your budget while eroding brand equity. Status quo, especially with an increased frequency or to mass media over niche, will eventually kill the communication program.

Stop setting a news release quota and select only the choicest news over the wire services and then repurpose the release for direct-to-public content with a twist for whatever audience has been assembled there. The same can be said for content marketing. Strive to elevate over educate.

3. News Wants Multimedia. Given the outpouring of studies that support the growing impact of visual communication, news releases need to do more than deliver words. Photos, videos, audio files, interactive graphics, graphs and illustrations are all worthwhile accompaniments for any release.

You don't have to include them all in your pitch or press release: A well-organized landing page or digital press kit makes everything easier, especially when it includes vertical photos for mobile. And what if the story you're selling doesn't merit multimedia? Then maybe it doesn't merit being shared.

4. Inspiration Beats Interruption. While people still consider the Oreo cookie blackout advertisement a classic case study, the novelty of news jacking and link bait is wearing thin. Simply put, the frequency of interruption — and distraction — has outpaced its real-time marketing merit.

Yes, there is still room to be timely on a topic. Successful advertising, marketing, and public relations campaigns have always been tapped into the current culture and current affairs. But with consumers growing wearisome of messages that follow them around (privacy pushback) and interrupt conversations in an attempt to change the subject (ad blocking pushback), it's time to think long term. Ensure those real-time marketing opportunities lend something to the conversation.

5. Be First For A Change. Years ago, I used to tell public relations students to not only know public relations inside and out, but also the industry or industries in which they work in as well. Doing so meets one of the criteria related to traditional public relations, which is to research trends within the industry and marketplace and determine what impact they may have on the organization and its publics.

Nowadays, I tell students that technology needs to be included in the research mix too because we're only a few years out from another disruption in communication. So instead of being reactive to things like social networks and search engines, public relations professions need to be proactive in determining how to apply cutting edge technology to their communication mix with an expressed intent to strengthen the relationships between their organization and those publics it needs to survive.

And if it doesn't? Then the bulk of the profession will eventually be absorbed by integrated marketing communication, with a handful of practitioners remaining to denote some specialty skills such as media relations, crisis communication, and public or government affairs. Who knows? Maybe that won't be such a bad thing. Or will it? I'll leave that one for you to decide.

Wednesday, June 10

How Future Communication Will Dictate Customer Experience

future communication
If you're looking for the next disruption in marketing, consider how technology is positioning communication as the primary driver in the customer experience. The change will be truly astounding.

Marketers can no longer be satisfied with the traditional five-stage buying process model: problem recognition, information research, alternative evaluation, purchase decision, and post purchase behavior. They must shift toward a model that is more robust, considering every consumer touch point prior to problem recognition and through the life of the product (and into the next purchase).

This is especially true as communication becomes an inescapable part of every product, with communication-centric technologies baked into them or as communication-based networks are developed around them. In some cases, communication is part of the product and customer experience, influencing the buying process every step of the way.

Five areas where communication is becoming critical to the customer experience.

Ferrari
1. Environmental Content. The performance sports car that emerged from its historic factory entrance in Maranello, 1947, has long been regarded for its innovation, passion, and diligence. In keeping with tradition, Ferrari showrooms have added augmented reality to the small screen, allowing patrons to match up digital content to the physical vehicle in front of them. Along with scan highlights, patrons can add features and change the colors on the screen with the swipe of few fingers.

Communication that integrates seamlessly with the environment becomes part of the experience.

Skully
2. Enchanted Items. Skully caught my attention some time ago when it unveiled its future concept to eliminate the motorcyclist's blind spot with a rear facing camera and change the experience with an interactive and transparent head's up display. This technology isn't built to distract drivers but rather eliminate distractions with an assist from augmented reality for GPS convenience and the safety of situational awareness.

Communication applications built into the helmet become an integral part of the product itself.

Tesco
3. Digital Storefronts. South Korea has created retail space out of thin air by installing display walls in its subways. The displays interact with mobile devices, allowing subway passengers to shop for groceries while waiting for their next connection. Once purchased with a point-and-click mobile app, the order is presumably delivered around the time the passenger arrives to whatever destination they preselect. Future applications could include interactive touch screens or the option to pick up any orders on the way home.

Digital content and communication is shifting toward truly functional customer experiences.


Corning
4. Portable Data. Originally envisioned by Corning, the world is not too far off from turning a wide variety of surfaces into digital interfaces that interact seamlessly with any mobile or portable data in design. If you can imagine an instructor or speaker presenting educational material on the big screen while participants capture the presentation on the small screen (and automatically receive e-handouts on cue), then you've only scratched the surface of what's possible and probable in the years ahead. The prospect opens up an entirely new canvas for graphic artists and communicators to consider.

Presentation displays and increasingly portable data will redefine what's possible for communication.

Microsoft
5. AR/VR. Microsoft, Sony and other companies are busily developing the next edition of what virtual reality and augmented reality might mean for gaming. Entertainment is only a starting point. Whether the experience is detached (virtual reality) or environmentally responsive (augmented reality), its applications will eventually grow exponentially into training programs, fitness instructors, and a variety of educational applications with virtual classrooms, holographic illusions, or immersive reenactments that provide people a perspective of what any time or place might be like.

Immersive and responsive communication will challenge professionals in unimaginable ways.

While these are just some of the ways that technology is working to change the interface, all of them represent the increasing impact communication will have on the customer experience. It will become an ever-present part of the environment and will sometimes be baked into the very functionality of the product.

But even without these advances and near future, communication is playing an ever increasing role in the customer experience. Every bit of content produced and shared by organizations today have positive and negative consequences to brand recognition and reputation. This includes customer service complaints that play out publicly online to the frequency of irrelevant interruption and value of the communication offered (as opposed to the value organizations sometimes think they offer).

And with this in mind, maybe it is time to stop thinking so much about a sales funnel but an experience  corridor that a company provides from its initial introduction though the life of the product and eventual replacement. After all, customer satisfaction, not sales, is a truer benchmark for longevity.
 

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